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What you need to know about the Quarantine Act as isolation becomes mandatory for returning travellers

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Canada is making unprecedented use of the federal Quarantine Act in a bid to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The order, which went into effect early Wednesday, hours before it was announced, means all travellers returning to Canada are now legally required to go into self-isolation for 14 days rather than simply urged to do so. Here’s a closer look at the legislation:

Has Canada always had a Quarantine Act?

According to the federal government, a piece of legislation bearing the same name went into effect shortly after confederation in 1872, but was left largely unchanged for more than a century. After the deadly SARS outbreak of 2003, however, the government acted on a recommendation to beef up the legislation.

The act as we know it today received royal ascent in 2005.

What’s allowed under act?

The legislation gives the federal health minister sweeping powers to stop the spread of communicable diseases either in or out of Canada. Those measures include everything from routine screenings conducted by quarantine officers at airports to the sort of mandatory isolation orders issued on Wednesday.

“The Quarantine Act is always active. It’s being used all the time,” says Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a global health law professor at York University. “It’s just not always used in a very public way.”

The Act was invoked earlier this year when travellers returning to Canada from Wuhan, China and other global hotspots for the novel coronavirus were detained for two weeks at an eastern-Ontario military base. But  Hoffman says the latest orders, issued by Health Minister Patty Hajdu, take the government into uncharted territory.

“We’ve never, ever seen a quarantine order this broad or affecting so many people at once in Canada,” he said. ”

Why is the government taking this step?

Hajdu said the measure was necessary to send a message about the importance of limiting the spread of COVID-19,, which has sickened more than 3,000 Canadians and killed at least 30. The order comes after women in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador were arrested for violating provincial orders requiring to stay at home after travel abroad.

“People are not understanding that this 14 days is absolutely essential to protect the health of their fellow Canadians,” she said. “… So there is perfect clarity around the need to isolate when Canadians come back from abroad whether it’s from the USA or other international destinations we are implementing the Quarantine Act so there is no confusion about the need to do so whether you are symptomatic or not.”

Does the government have any obligations under the act?

The legislation gives the government a fair bit of latitude to do whatever they feel is necessary to stop the spread of a disease that could pose a public health risk, Hoffman says.

“They’re not in prison,” he says of the people under quarantine. “The government, under the act, is supposed to take steps to make it as least intrusive as possible, but what exactly that means, there is some discretion.”

Hajdu says returning travellers will be barred from taking public transit or placing vulnerable people at risk, but says the government will assist with transportation and accommodation arrangements as needed.

How will the new orders be enforced?

That’s the big question for Hoffman, who says the new edict will need to be implemented consistently across the country in order to ensure it does not run afoul of the Constitution. Hoffman says that while quarantine officers at the border have enforcement powers, local public health and law enforcement officials may be enlisted as the order takes effect. Health Canada did not immediately respond to request for comment, but Hajdu has said details about enforcement will be released before the order kicks in.

What happens if someone violates the Quarantine Act?

Hoffman says the legislation contains a wide range of penalties for those flouting the law. Someone violating direct instructions and potentially placing the public at risk of a communicable disease, he says, can face a fine of up to $1 million and as many as three years in prison.

Is the government within its rights to take this step?

Hoffman anticipates the new use of the Act will be challenged in court eventually, but says Ottawa is likely on solid legal ground.

He said the Act requires Hajdu to follow a “reasonableness requirement”  and be able to demonstrate that the affected travellers pose a genuine risk to the public. The overtaxed health-care system and rapidly growing number of cases, he said, may well meet that threshold.

Additionally, Hoffman said the new measures likely fall within the bounds of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by containing a fixed, relatively short time limit and playing out against the backdrop of an unprecedented global crisis.

“It’s in a context of a constrained public health system that really needs everyone to comply,” he said. “Maybe it would pass that legal test. We’re going to find out.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2020.

Source: Government of Canada, The Canadian Press

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the order would go into effect Thursday at midnight.

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COVID-19

Consider releasing some inmates to stem COVID-19 in prisons, minister requests

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OTTAWA — Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has asked the federal prison service and the parole board to look at early release for some offenders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

The government is committed to protecting inmates, correctional staff and the public given the unique risks the virus poses for prisons, said Mary-Liz Power, a spokeswoman for the minister.

“This pandemic continues to evolve and we have been clear that our response will as well,” she said Tuesday in a statement.

“Minister Blair has asked both the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and the chair of the Parole Board of Canada to determine whether there are measures that could be taken to facilitate early release for certain offenders.”

Neither the Correctional Service nor the Parole Board had immediate comment on the minister’s request.

The prison service said Monday two inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at Port-Cartier Institution, a maximum-security facility in Quebec — the first confirmed cases involving prisoners in a federal institution.

The service said nine employees at Port-Cartier had also tested positive for the virus.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents employees in 49 federal institutions, says the release of a few inmates would not stem the spread of COVID-19 in prison but would increase the risk for Canadians.

“The focus must be on changing routines in our institutions to respect social distancing and self-isolation directives to every extent possible,” the union said.

“Canada is in crisis, and its citizens are already dealing with a potentially deadly threat. It is irresponsible to introduce further threats into our communities.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2020.

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COVID-19

Amid medical-supplies scramble, pandemic highlights new perils to free trade

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WASHINGTON — “America First” rhetoric and disdain for free trade are old news in the Donald Trump era, but with countries in a life-or-death scramble to stockpile gowns, gloves, masks and ventilators, protectionism these days isn’t such a dirty word.

Even an ardent free trader like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau let slip an interesting — and vaguely isolationist — turn of phrase Tuesday as he laid out Canada’s efforts to procure scarce personal protective equipment for the country’s health workers.

“We understand that countries around the world are taking their own approaches,” Trudeau said during his daily doorstep briefing. “We will continue to co-ordinate as much as possible, but every step of the way our priority will be ensuring that Canada is able to take care of its own.”

No one would suggest, even in the grips of a life-changing pandemic, that Trudeau’s Liberal government is losing its religion when it comes to globalization. But trade experts agree that free trade, which has already been under siege in the U.S. and elsewhere, could well emerge from the COVID-19 outbreak on life support, if it manages to survive at all.

The promise of free trade is that if people can buy and sell without obstacles at national borders, production will shift to where it’s most efficient. But that also means that countries will come to rely on foreign imports for a lot of their goods while their own industries focus on exporting whatever products they’re best at making.

“Everybody is almost sort of retrenching to a nationalism that runs contrary to what the whole spirit of globalization and trade liberalization has traditionally been about,” said Adam Taylor, a one-time adviser to the previous Conservative government who now heads up Export Action Global, an international trade consulting firm.

“The sad reality is … whether it’s a recession or other events that affect the globe, you often see less of a commitment to free and open trade, and more of a commitment to nationalism or creating a nationalist economy — and that’s a real worry for free-traders.”

Indeed, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a protectionist who made life difficult for Canada during the 13-month effort to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement throughout 2018, sounded in his element Monday during an online meeting of G20 trade ministers.

“Unfortunately, like others, we are learning in this crisis that over-dependence on other countries as a source of cheap medical products and supplies has created a strategic vulnerability to our economy,” Lighthizer said.

“Let us not make long-term decisions in the midst of a crisis. I suggest that we should get through this together, gather all the information we can, and then make decisions for the future to ensure that these things don’t happen to the world again.”

The crisis of COVID-19, which by Tuesday had sickened nearly 850,000 around the world and killed more than 41,000, including 3,600 in the U.S. and 95 in Canada, brings to mind the old adage about nothing focusing the mind like a hanging at dawn.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned that New Orleans would be out of ventilators by the weekend and was dangerously low on hospital beds. Michigan, too, says it needs upwards of 10,000 more breathing machines. Israel is supplementing its supply by turning them out from a plant that once produced missiles.

“We cannot remain dependent on procurement from other countries,” Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement.

Finding enough ventilators in the U.S. is “like being on eBay, with 50 other states bidding — that’s literally what we’re doing,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose description of U.S. states and the Federal Emergency Management Agency working at cross-purposes made the whole exercise sound like a scene from a Keystone Kops film.

“And then FEMA gets involved, and FEMA starts bidding, and now FEMA is bidding on top of the 50. So FEMA is driving up the price,” he said, incredulous.

“What sense does this make?”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, whose state is also running dangerously low, issued an order Tuesday requiring ventilator manufacturers, as well as suppliers, retailers and hospitals to provide a weekly inventory to allow the government to better keep track.

“We never want to be in a position where we can’t buy very important medical equipment in this country,” DeWine tweeted last week. “We have to source this equipment in this country.”

Dan Ujczo, an international trade lawyer based in Columbus, Ohio, said the pandemic is unlikely to mean the end of free trade in North America, given just how interconnected and symbiotic Canada and the U.S. have become. But what it is doing is shining another ray of “disinfecting sunlight” on the complex nature of the trade ties between the two, and the problems they can create.

“I don’t think people fully understood how interconnected our businesses were and the pro free-trade folks were looking at that with optimism — you know, ‘See how connected we are,’ ” Ujczo said in an interview.

Others, however, have come to see disadvantages — and the advent of COVID-19, he said, will advance an awakening in the U.S. that has only accelerated with the election of Donald Trump.

“In the great rebalancing that we’re in right now, this has tipped the scales toward more protectionism. Where there is some optimism, I think, is there’s going to be a realization we can’t do it completely alone. No country can do it completely alone.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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